Communion Of Dreams

Doing better.
February 20, 2009, 12:01 pm
Filed under: Art, Book Conservation, General Musings, University of Missouri

A weird thing: in the middle of a very serious economic downturn, my personal economic situation continues to rise.  We sent all our tax information to our accountant this past week, and I was somewhat suprised to note that I had earned roughly twice as much last year as I have earned in, well, many years.  It’s still solidly under the household average for the nation, but nonetheless is a significant bump up.

And this year I could easily earn twice again as much, if I stay on top of my work demand.  This hasn’t always been the case.  In fact, for a long long time I was of the opinion that it was almost impossible to actually earn a living – let alone a decent one – as a book conservator in private practice.  I still wanted to do it, and found ways to make that work, but for a very long time I earned very little.

What changed?

Well, time.  My reputation got more established.  But more than that, just time.  If I tell someone I’ve been doing this for 17 years, they figure I must be good at it.  And having some grey in my beard helps a great deal as well.  No, seriously.

That, and I made some changes in how I handle my fees when I closed the gallery and started working from home.  Yeah, I increased them, but most people find that acceptable – with time and reputation, they expect your fees to go up.  What I think is more important is that I established a minimum charge of two hours labor, meaning that people had to be fairly serious about wanting my services.  It’s curious, but this actually helped a great deal.

See, when I first opened my shop, I would charge $25 an hour, with no minimum.  And I would constantly get people coming in, wanting this little thing done or that little thing done, and wanting to only pay me for ten or fifteen minutes of work.  It drove me nuts, but I thought I had to do it in order to keep the work coming in.  Truth is, it took more time to deal with this stuff and track it than it was worth.  Eventually I established a minimum half hour charge, but even that was pretty marginal.  And people would constantly balk about the half hour charge, particularly when they just wanted some work done on a paperback or personal bible that could easily be replaced for a nominal cost.  They saw me only as an alternative to buying a new book and getting on with life.

When I switched over to the gallery, with the bindery business as part of that, this sort of stuff dropped off some, but not altogether.  Why?  Because people were coming into an art gallery – a nice one at that – where they would feel a little foolish complaining about a $15 charge (my rates were then $30 an hour).  This taught me a lesson, though I would still work long hours trying to keep the cash flow positive, dealing with every little project that came in.  When I closed the gallery 8 years later, I knew one of the things I wanted to do was to set my fee schedule such that it forced people to respect my work right up front.  I raised my rates (over the course of the time I was at the gallery they had gone up, but I basically doubled them again) and implemented the two hour minimum.  I put that information on my voice mail and right on my website, and it is the first thing I’ll tell someone who calls me asking about binding work.

Now, during the period I was being a care provider, I didn’t have much time to do any conservation work.  My time really was valuable to me, even though money was tight.  So I wasn’t willing to try and fit in this or that small job, just to keep the money coming in.  The temptation to go back on my fee schedule was minimized.  It took a while, but soon I stopped getting the bulk of the calls wanting me to work on this or that easily-replaceable book.  Instead, people now see my work as highly skilled labor, priced appropriately for the service, and suitable for care of rare and valuable books.  I won’t get rich doing what I do, but I should be able to start paying off my debts from all those years of not earning much.  Just not struggling is a very nice feeling for a change.

And there is the very big benefit that now I get to regularly work on really cool books and documents.  As a friend noted this morning, following discussion of a set of volumes I had just done and told him about:

That is so cool. What an interesting job you have. Every project is different, fun stuff to look at. Very neat.

Indeed.  It took a long time to get here, and I wouldn’t recommend the path to others.  But I like where I’ve wound up.


Jim Downey

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